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SF Homeless Project: LGBT center to focus on mental health of homeless youth

by Alex Madison

San Francisco LGBT Community Center Executive Director Rebecca Rolfe and deputy director Roberto Ordeñana. Photo: Trish Tunney
San Francisco LGBT Community Center Executive Director Rebecca Rolfe and deputy director Roberto Ordeñana. Photo: Trish Tunney  

The San Francisco LGBT Community Center will soon offer mental health services to homeless youth. The center won a competitive grant proposal last year for $250,000 annually for six years from the San Francisco Department of Public Health to fund its new on-site mental health assistance services.

"We really saw a need in the community to increase mental health services to LGBT youth," said Roberto Ordeñana, the deputy executive director of the center. "Homeless and marginally housed youth are carrying trauma from rejection of their families and communities in addition to the challenges of living on the streets."

In the United States, 50 percent of homeless youth, younger than 24, are LGBT and on any given day over 600 LGBT youth are living on the streets of the city, Ordeñana said.

"These numbers are unacceptable," he said.

Starting in August, LGBT youth, ages 18-24, will be able to make an appointment to meet one-on-one with a mental health specialist for a therapy session or participate in group therapy. Additionally, the specialist will be available on site for youth who attend the drop-in hours at the center.

Since 2006, the center has offered drop-in hours for homeless LGBT youth in a youth-oriented space at the facility, located at 1800 Market Street. There, the young adults can relax, take a shower, eat, and access the various resources the center provides like help with housing, employment, and education.

Last year, the center expanded these drop-in hours to 30 hours a week including on Saturdays, something it achieved with the help of late mayor Ed Lee and gay District 8 Supervisor Jeff Sheehy. The SF LGBT center, which opened in 2002, offers the city's only LGBT drop-in space, according to Ordeñana.

The center also provides a queer youth meal night every Tuesday from 5 to 7 p.m. in the Rainbow Room on the second floor. Around 300 youth per year attend these drop-in hours.

The mental health services are designed to "meet youth where they are at," said Vanessa Teran, a queer woman, who is the associate director of youth services at the center. Teran explained that the center will not push any kind of agenda or force services on their youth clients, but instead, will allow them to decide for themselves if they want to pursue therapy or other services.

"It will really be about building relationships with the youth and understanding their situation and needs," Teran said. "This could look like group sessions, one-on-one meetings with a therapist, or taking a walk around the block with our clients talking about their challenges or their opportunities and how to cease them."

The first couple of months that this new service is offered will act like a pilot program and will assess the wants and needs of the center's youth. Though it will initially focus on therapy, it could expand into youth being provided with medication or hospitalization if the youth request it.

The therapy sessions will also allow the opportunity to connect youth to the various wraparound and support services offered at the center, including additional health services and referrals to Navigation Centers, which allow people to bring their belongings and pets and work to get people into permanent housing.

The center hired one mental health specialist, Micah Rea, about three months ago, who will be the main therapist available to youth. Rea, who identifies as queer and nonbinary, is not currently licensed as a clinical professional, so will be supervised by a licensed clinical provider until they become licensed.

Ordeñana said he expects a lot of referrals to come in from other agencies for youth to use its new services, and he said, they're ready for them.

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